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U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from a group seeking photographs of White House lawyer Vince Foster taken at the scene of his death in 1993.
Accuracy in Media, a media watchdog group, argues the public has a “substantial interest” in the photos because they might show whether the government properly investigated Foster’s death.
Foster was found in a suburban Virginia park on July 20, 1993, with a gunshot wound to the head. Although the death was ruled to be a suicide by four investigations — including one performed by former independent counsel Kenneth Starr — it is still suspected by many groups to have been the result of foul play.
Through a federal Freedom of Information Act request, Accuracy in Media asked the
National Park Service to release photos taken of Foster’s body at the scene of his death and during his autopsy.
But the Park Service refused, citing an exemption for cases in which releasing information would create an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
AIM sued, and a federal judge ruled for the government. The
Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld that ruling last October, saying, “AIM cannot deny the powerful sense of invasion bound to be aroused in close survivors by wanton publication of gruesome details of death by violence.”
Both courts refused to privately examine the photos before making their rulings.
AIM appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing the public has a compelling interest to learn the nature of the White House attorney’s death. But the court, without comment, declined to hear the case.
“It seems all government institutions are afraid of this issue,” said Tom Fitton, president of
Judicial Watch, which represents AIM. “We will pursue this through other legal means.”
The groups could ask Congress to amend the Freedom of Information Act in such a way as to allow the request to be granted.
“The deceased have no privacy rights,” Fitton continued. “The law couldn’t be clearer in our view. This is a matter of grave public interest. This is another one of the highest-ranking government officials to die under suspicious circumstances in a generation, and the public can’t obtain core evidence on this.”
“There’s something wrong here,” he added. “What is the National Park Service hiding?”
Under the law, privacy interests are to be balanced against the public’s interest in obtaining information withheld by the government. In the Foster case, the National Park Service contends the graphic nature of the photographs would render their release offensive to the Foster family.
Reed Irvine, AIM’s chairman, called the court’s claim “absurd,” since accounts of people who saw Foster’s body at the scene agree there was no visible evidence of a serious wound on the victim’s body.
The person who found Foster’s body at first thought that he was simply sleeping. He was lying on his back with his arms at his side, feet outstretched, and there was almost no visible blood either on his body or the surrounding vegetation.
Investigators contend Foster had fired a .38 caliber bullet into his mouth that exited from the back of his skull.
The reason the photos are not being released, Irvine said, is not because they are graphic, but because they are not graphic enough. According to AIM, the pictures disprove the U.S. Park Police claim that evidence of suicide was so obvious there was no need to investigate the death as a possible homicide.
One photo of Foster’s hand was leaked to the press, showing the tip of his thumb between the trigger and the trigger guard of the .38 revolver he allegedly used to shoot himself. AIM says the photo proves the U.S. Park Police lied about the reason the gun remained in Foster’s hand. Police said it was because his thumb was wedged between the trigger and the trigger guard above the knuckle.
The photo shows the trigger guard encircling the thumb above the thumbnail, where it could not have been “wedged.”
Irvine believes arguments that relatives of deceased individuals may be pained by revelations about their loved ones could lead to a change in FBI policy. The agency may use such claims as an excuse for changing its present policy of making individuals’ files public after their death.
“Using the excuse of possibly injuring feelings of relatives to withhold information of wrongdoing or errors by government officials or by the deceased should be a matter of great concern to journalists and historians,” he said.
See Joseph Farah’s commentary: